Appreciating an APM All-Star: the Raptors’ Amir Johnson

122112-amirEditor’s Note:  Thanks today to Adam Francis of  Follow him there or on twitter @raptorshq.  Amir Johnson definitely wins the award for “Player with the largest discrepancy between the appreciation given them by APM and the public at large”.  Over the last six 2-year APM sets, Johnson ranks 5th, 29th, 18th, 8th, 11th, and 11th.  That is remarkable from a guy not remotely on the radar of the league’s elite players.  Today, Adam explains what makes Amir so valuable.

Amir Johnson does not bark.

He does not make circus shots as he careens into fans seated along the baselines.

He doesn’t win dunk contests, and no, he doesn’t even have a go-to nickname.

However much like Jerome Williams, Morris Peterson, Vince Carter and other one-time Raptor alumni, Johnson is a fan favourite in Toronto. He might have only averaged 8 points and 6 rebounds in his time with the Raptors, but fans and media alike know that Amir Johnson is a lot more valuable than those paltry averages indicate. Last year Johnson was arguably the team’s most valuable player, but it’s more because of the things that don’t show up on the box score, than those that do.

To back that statement up, let’s throw out this simple fact. Last season, the Dinos outscored their opponents by 4.1 points per 100 possessions with Amir on the court. Not too shabby.

But it’s the flip-side that really makes you do a double take.

Without Johnson in the game, the Raptors were outscored by nearly 10 points per 100 possessions. That’s a 14 point swing! Simply put, the Raptors were a much better team at both ends when he was on the court, not just last year, but in previous years as well. Per, Johnson has had at least a 7 point impact at both ends combined per 100 possessions each of the last few seasons.

Last year though, this plus-minus dominance reached a peak, with a total plus-minus mark of +215, good for fifth in the NBA. The next closest Raptor was rookie Quincy Acy, a similar type of player incidentally, with a +95 however that likely was impacted by a much sample size.

After Acy, Rudy Gay sat at a paltry +56.

Want more proof?

With Johnson on the floor last season, the Raptors scored 1.10 points per possession, a mark that would have put the club sixth in the league in that metric. Likewise, the Raps only allowed 1.05 points per possession, good for 11th in the league.

But with Johnson on the bench, things got ugly.

Opponents scored 1.14 points per possession (giving the Raptors the worst mark in the league) and Toronto itself only put up 1.01 (28th.)

How then does Johnson have this sort of impact on his team, year after year?

For starters, this is a player, drafted by the Detroit Pistons during the days of Rasheed Wallace, Antonio McDyess and Ben Wallace. Johnson may have been a high school kid – in fact he was the last high schooler drafted prior to the NBA’s rule change in 2006 – but he practiced every day with some of the league’s best defenders at his position. Johnson has noted many-a-time that that experience rubbed off in terms of his defensive fundamentals.

And It doesn’t hurt too that at 6-9, 210 lbs, Johnson is blessed with excellent length, speed, and agility, not to mention athleticism. Combined with his defensive savvy, these physical traits allow him to be much more Joakim Noah than Tyler Hansbrough. On defense, Johnson might not be the beefiest defender down low, but he excels at breaking up screen-and-roll situations, tracking the ball, and helping and recovering.

It’s at the offensive end though where things get even more interesting.

Johnson doesn’t have a huge offensive repertoire. Aside from his mid-range jump shot, a few ball-fakes, and a three-point shot that he’s been trying to work into his repetoire, Johnson’s offence mostly takes the form of offensive rebounds, put-backs and tip-ins around the rim. But it’s the fact he doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be effective on offense, that makes him so valuable. On a club with some of the league’s least-efficient, high-volume scorers, a player of Johnson’s ilk is absolutely necessary. He doesn’t need plays run for him, but can capitalize on rebound opportunities (Johnson is one of the league’s best offensive rebounders), and can free-up better shots for teammates by setting top-notch screens.

And it’s the latter point that many focus on when talking about why Amir Johnson is so valuable on the court. Setting screens is a lost art in the NBA, but Johnson is one of the best, consistently staying strong, getting into a wide stance, and positioning himself to maximize space for teammates, be it a DeMar DeRozan curl, or a Kyle Lowry rim attack. SB Nation’s Mike Prada actually dedicated an entire post last month to this topic, a must-read to really understand all of the intricacies of Johnson’s strengths in this area.

However, much like his hustle work in the paint, and his ability to break up offensive sets, setting screens doesn’t show up in the box score, and that’s why Amir Johnson will likely continue to fly under the radar for common NBA fan. Advanced stat-heads more than appreciate his contributions, as do Raptors fans, however it’s unlikely he’ll sniff an All-Star game any time soon.

And that’s a shame because as I’ve noted in this piece, his on-court value should put him squarely in the running for such a contest.

But if you asked Amir about an All-Star appearance (he was left off the ballot again this season) I’m sure he’d simply shrug his shoulders, tell you it would be cool to attend, but more importantly, would rather help his team win games.

That’s just Amir Johnson.

Maybe he does need to start barking like a dog…

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  1. Pingback: Recap: Cavs 105, Raptors 91 (or, visions of Aught 9) « Cavs: The Blog

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